Abner Mikva, public servant and Law School faculty member, 1926-2016

Abner Mikva, one of the few Americans to serve in senior positions in all three branches of the federal government, passed away on July 4. He was 90.

Mikva, JD’51, taught at the University of Chicago Law School and served as senior director of its Mandel Legal Aid Clinic after retiring from government service.

His roles in the federal government stretched from serving in Congress in the 1970s, to sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 1980s, to being appointed White House counsel by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Then, while teaching at UChicago, Mikva befriended and mentored a young Law School lecturer named Barack Obama.

“Abner Mikva was the Law School graduate who clearly embodied public service,” said Law School Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics. “Through his work in government and his teaching at the Law School, he encouraged younger people to join him in his important and honorable work. It is no surprise that he mentored a future president.”

A native of Wisconsin, Mikva graduated from Washington University at St. Louis and served with the Army Air Corps in World War II. He graduated from the Law School in 1951 and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton.

It was while at the Law School that Mikva got an early taste of politics. On his way home one night, he stopped by the local ward office and said he’d like to volunteer for the Democratic campaigns for the upcoming election. The committeeman asked who sent him, to which Mikva replied “nobody.” The committeeman then told the young law student: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Mikva wasn’t deterred, however. In 1956, he won election to the Illinois House as a Democrat and in 1968 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served eight years from two different congressional districts.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Mikva to the federal appellate court for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served on the court for 16 years, including the last three as chief judge.

Mikva left the bench in 1994 at the request of President Bill Clinton, who appointed him White House counsel. He served two years in the senior role before moving back to Chicago to start the first of his many retirements.

It was then that Mikva began to teach at UChicago. He also was appointed senior director of its Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and led the clinic’s Appellate Advocacy Project.

“It was such a memorable experience having Judge Mikva for Legislative Process,” said Adam Bonin, JD’97, one of Mikva’s first students in the course and now an election law attorney in Philadelphia. “There’s no substitute for the real-world experience he had. The stories he told were amazing, and he was always so generous with his time.”

Mikva and his wife, Zoe, started the nonprofit Mikva Challenge, a civic leadership program for young people which encourages them to get involved in political issues and campaigns. In 2014, in honor of Mikva’s long career in public service, the Kanter Family Foundation established the Mikva Fellowship Program Fund at the Law School to support a one-year postgraduate public interest law fellowship.

“He was smart as a whip, generous of spirit, and dedicated to the public good,” said Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law. “Our nation needs more leaders like him.”

The University in the spring of 2014 awarded Mikva the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service, which recognizes distinguished public service in the field of education. Later that year, Obama bestowed upon his mentor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Mikva called it the “greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

In addition to his wife Zoe, Mikva is survived by three daughters, Mary and Laurie Mikva, and Rachel Mikva Rosenberg; and seven grandchildren.

The burial will be a private family funeral. A public memorial will be planned for early August.